In this Dec. 20, 2017, photo, President Donald Trump, joined by Vice President Mike Pence, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and other members of...
Carolyn Kaster

What the shutdown (hopefully) taught Republicans about Trump

Nearly two weeks into the longest government shutdown in American history, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of Congress’ most high profile Donald Trump loyalists, made an unfortunate prediction.

“If he gives in now, that’s the end of 2019 in terms of him being an effective president,” Graham said on the Jan. 2 edition of Sean Hannity’s Fox News program, where he knew Trump would see his comments. “That’s probably the end of his presidency.”

Of course, the South Carolinian has an odd habit of making overwrought predictions, and it’s not too surprising that he’s facing some mockery over those comments now. But there’s a different quote from one of Graham’s colleagues that struck me as equally notable. Bloomberg News reported on Jan. 16:

GOP Senator John Kennedy dismissed a bipartisan effort to urge President Donald Trump to open the government for several weeks to clear the way for talks on border security.

“You know when that’s going to happen? When you look outside your window and see donkeys fly,” said Kennedy of Louisiana. “It’s not going to happen.”

“You can have your own opinions about President Trump, but I think most fair-minded people would have to agree he’s a smart man. And he’s not going to agree to open it back up and then have Speaker Pelosi say, ‘Thank you very much, you get nothing.’”

Nine days later, that’s exactly what happened. The Louisiana Republican’s assessment was exactly backwards: putting aside the president’s intellectual limitations, he agreed to re-open the government for a few weeks, even as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ensured that Trump received nothing.

Whether or not anyone saw flying donkeys is unclear.

My point is not to poke fun at Kennedy or Graham for assessments they probably wish they could take back. Rather, what’s of interest at this point is what, if anything, Republicans have learned from their recent experience. Both Senate Republicans offered specific and unambiguous predictions based on what they assumed to be true about the president, his plans, and his capacity for following through.

Do they now know better? Shouldn’t they?

With that in mind, consider some of what Trump’s GOP should understand now, even if they were unclear before the president’s surrender on Friday afternoon:

1. Trump doesn’t know what he’s doing. No, really, he has no idea what he’s doing. The president stumbled into a government shutdown because he was afraid of upsetting some far-right media personalities, and in the weeks that followed, Trump demonstrated a total inability to think even one step ahead. He made painfully clear over the course of five weeks that he doesn’t know how to negotiate, he doesn’t know how to persuade, and he doesn’t bother to keep up on the most basic details on the policy dispute he initiated. Trump assured his allies he had “a plan.” He didn’t.

2. The people whose advice Trump takes seriously also don’t know they’re doing. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a leader of the right-wing House Freedom Caucus, said two days before the shutdown began that if the White House forced a crisis, Democrats would wilt under pressure and agree to a deal. He was wrong. On Friday morning, as Trump was caving, one senior Republican said, “I hope the president remembers this when the Freedom Caucus types tell him what to do next time. They only have a first move: start a fight. They never have a second move.”

3. Trump is unconcerned about making his allies look foolish. The president assured congressional Republicans, conservative media, and allied activists that he wouldn’t back down. There was one way he’d end the shutdown, Trump said, and it was when Democrats agreed to meet his demands. On Thursday afternoon, Senate Republicans followed his lead, voting against a temporary spending measure to end the shutdown, insisting it needed to have wall funding. Literally one day later, the president retreated, leading those same GOP senators to approve the identical policy they’d rejected 24 hours earlier as unacceptable.

4. Nancy Pelosi is vastly better at political leadership than Trump. In his first two years in the Oval Office, the president’s principal foe was his own ineptitude. Now, his principal foe is a skilled and experienced congressional leader, who effectively humiliated Trump as if he were a hapless amateur – which Pelosi proved him to be. As the dust settles, it’s the Speaker who emerges stronger and more popular, as Trump looks around erratically, wondering how he lost so spectacularly.

The week before the shutdown, the president met in the Oval Office with Democratic leaders, and told reporters, in apparent reference to Pelosi’s efforts to nail down the necessary votes to become Speaker, “I also know that, you know, Nancy’s in a situation where it’s not easy for her to talk right now.” Pelosi responded, “Please don’t characterize the strength that I bring to this meeting.” She warned him not to underestimate her. Trump should have listened.

5. The laws of political physics have not been repealed. In some Republican circles, there’s a belief that Trump defies gravity. He can get away with ignoring polls and public attitudes. He can persevere where mere mortals may stumble. He can ignore the traditional pressures that normal politicians pay attention to. When others look to compromise or accept concessions, he digs in, commanding others to bend to his will. Even when it looks like he’s struggling, the argument goes, Trump will find a way to succeed, no matter the odds or the predictions of skeptics. More than anyone else in American public life, this man is a winner.

It was always a silly fairy tale, which has now been exposed as a sham. All Republicans have to do now is accept the truth that has been laid bare.